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The Smartest Avalanche Beacon

With their new avy beacon, the Tracker 2, the crew at Backcountry Access hopes to change the way skiers deal with slides.
posted: 12/07/2009
BCA's Tracker 2

Bruce “Bruno” McGowan drops a transmitting avalanche beacon on the sidewalk and power walks away from it, staring at the screen of a receiving beacon in his hand, calling out numbers.  “Thirteen point five, fourteen point two, fifteen one,” he chants, his eyes never leaving the screen.

McGowan, president of Backcountry Access, wants people to change how they use avalanche beacons, and he thinks their new model can do it. The Tracker 2, a chunk of black plastic not much bigger than a pack of cards, has been a long time coming. BCA has been slowly tweaking their technology since their original digital beacon, the Tracker DTS, first hit the market in December 1998.

“Ease of use is our number one priority. We want those things to be as idiot proof as possible,” McGowan says.

 To get there, BCA did some homework. After talking to every known avalanche survivor they could find, they decided the new beacon would do the most good if it could quickly locate a single buried victim. It has a multiple burial mode, which kicks in automatically, but McGowan says its strength lies in locking onto the nearest signal and reading it quickly and precisely. It functions essentially the same way the old Tracker does, but it’s streamlined and less complicated. The lag time between transmit and receive has been cut back to nearly zero, and it can pick up signals from significantly farther away than previous models.

All the testing and development happens at the BCA office in Boulder, Colorado, which is strewn with a mishmash of gear and technology—boxes of circuit boards sit next to piles of climbing skins and shovel handles. Cages, meshed in copper wire so they look like chicken coops, house equipment to check frequency and range. The copper keeps the beacon’s signals from interfering with one another. Inside one of the cages, tester Johnny Walshe is making sure all the transceivers are precisely tuned to 457 kHz, the universal frequency for beacons.

Outside, the bike path behind the building is hash-marked every five meters for long range distance testing. McGowan and the rest of the BCA team are fanatical about those distance numbers. They’ve logged lots of time pacing back and forth on the path with test beacons in hand, making sure that every detail is dialed. “We don’t want people skiing with it until it’s ready to go,” he says.

It turns out, making something simple is really hard. The debut of this newest model has already been pushed back two years. Their ultimate goal was to make the Tracker 2 as simple as possible, even if it meant avoiding sexy extra features like a display screen. The product sample on McGowan’s desk has only one moving part: a pull-tab that sends the beacon into search mode.

Eventually, they want to make the beacons so intuitive that a skier will only need minimal practice to become an efficient searcher. That way, avalanche education can focus on other skills like shoveling and understanding snowpack and spend less time learning how to use complicated transceivers.

“That’s our goal,” McGowan says. “To make beacons less of the story, and education and knowledge the focus.”

After years of research and delay they just might have made it there. The Tracker 2 is slated to hit stores by the end of the year. To find out more, or to read about some of BCA’s research, visit backcountryaccess.com

 

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